The state of Karnataka is heading towards an election for its Legislative Assembly in the coming months. While the reigns of the state are obviously at stake, what is causing this election to be even more critical is the current political dynamics in the country. The ruling party in the state – Congress – has become a virtual non-entity in the country. Apart from a few smaller sized states in the north-east, Karnataka is the only large state in the country where it is in power. To harbor any ambitions of a political comeback, it absolutely has to do well here. On the other hand, the state is equally critical for the BJP in its quest to win a second term at the center in 2019. BJP had broken the southern citadel in 2008 by winning power in Karnataka during the state assembly elections but then it lost the same due to massive in-fighting and factionalism in the 2013 elections. If it wants to realize its ambition of increasing its seat share in New Delhi in 2019, winning back this state in the south is vital for the BJP.
With so much at stake, it is natural that both the Congress and the BJP have started early preparations for the elections. In fact for more than 6 months now, both parties have been raising the stakes and increasing their campaign pitch. In any election, it is natural to expect the opposition party to focus on the shortcomings of the government and appeal to the voters for a change. On the other hand, the incumbent government is expected to talk to the people on its “achievements” and consequently its continued plans for the state if voted back again.
However, the campaign preparation from the ruling Congress side in Karnataka has taken a very different route this time. The focus is not on the achievements of the Siddaramaiah government. Of course, there is a constant, if only notional, mention of the numerous social justice “bhagya” schemes launched and run by the government, and their consequences. However, the main focus of the ruling party has been on a few totally different issues. The goal of the preparation seems to be more towards disrupting the apple cart of the BJP and thereby hoping to come back to power, than going in for a campaign seeking a vote on the performance of the past 5 years.
We can categorise the approach of the ruling party on 5 broad “themes”.
Campaign of division
Since the past several months, the state government has been an active participant in the renewed demand for declaring the Lingayat community as a minority religion. Lingayats constitute nearly 20% of the electorate in Karnataka and undoubtedly have an overwhelming say in deciding the ruling party in every election. The leader of the Karnataka BJP, B S Yedyurappa, belongs to this community and is increasingly seen as consolidating the community vote for BJP. By stoking the fire of alleged discrimination and subjugation under the Hindu fold, the goal is to ensure that the community’s votes are split. Read this excellent piece to understand the role played by some senior political leaders of the Congress in this whole controversy. This movement is already showing some “results” for the incumbent with the Lingayat and Veershaiva (sub)community split on the demand. While the actual outcome of this movement can only be gauged in the coming months, it is quite clear that the re-ignition of this long standing demand this time is purely for political reasons.
Another potential fault-line being exploited by the ruling party in the past few months has been on the issue of Hindi vs Kannada. The trigger for this topic was the usage of Hindi messages in the Bengaluru Metro stations and coaches. The same was exploited to the hilt to project some sort of “imposition” of Hindi by the central BJP government with the Congress playing the role of the Kannada flag bearer.
Campaign of provocation
Recently, BJP leader B S Yedyurappa had some discussions with the Chief Minister of Goa regarding the sharing of the Mahadayi river water. As a result of the discussions, the CM of Goa sent a response to BSY agreeing in principle to provide drinking water to Karnataka on humanitarian grounds, while the core issues may take longer to resolve. Instead of latching on to this opportunity, the ruling government did everything to ensure the initiative died a quiet death. Not just this, it then tacitly supported a Karnataka bandh to protest the attitude of Goa in this dispute. The only reason for the complete non-action on the part of the government was the inevitable credit that BJP and its Karnataka leader was bound to get, if any kind of a settlement (even an interim one) happened. The bandh, and associated protests, ended up agitating a lot of the genuinely affected farmers and villagers of North Karnataka and the diplomatic steps initiated were naturally forgotten.
Over the past few years, a number of Hindu activists in the coastal Karnataka region have been murdered brutally. The reasons for these murders are both political and social. However, the state government has gone completely slow in the investigation of these cases. Whether it is the murder of Prashanth Poojary in 2015 or the recent murder of Deepak Rao in 2017, the near static progress of investigation has emboldened those who are committing these political murders. The net result of such inaction is the widening the religious fault-lines in an already communally sensitive region of Karnataka. Politically this is expected to create stark polarization of votes based on religion, which again could help the establishment.
Campaign of appeasement
A third approach that is distinctly visible in the run up to the elections has been that of appeasement of minorities. The most recent, and most blatant, attempt at such appeasement was the circular by the government to the police department to look into the possibility of withdrawal of cases against those accused belonging to the minority communities who have been held in cases of communal riots. Subsequently, due to sustained protests of many, the circular was withdrawn and a modified communication dropping the word “minorities” was issued. However the purpose of communicating the intent of appeasement was successfully achieved through this exercise.
The allocation of budgetary resources for minority-only schemes has increased manifold in the past 5 years in Karnataka. From a sum of around 770 crores in 2013-14, this budget has increased to more than 2200 crores in the year 2017-18, indicating a three-fold increase in just 4 years. There is no doubt doling out of exclusive schemes based solely on the religion of the target recipients is a blatant exercise at minority appeasement.
One of the state ministers recently declared, very proudly, that he was being elected continuously from his constituency due to the benevolence of the minority community.
All these clearly indicate at a planned effort to garner the votes of the minorities based on a regime of appeasement.
Campaign of carping
Recently, as part of the Parivartana yatra being held by the Karnataka BJP, the Chief Minister of UP – Sri Yogi Adityanath – visited Hubballi and gave stirring speech to the crowd gathered there. He reminded the people that Karnataka was the land of Hanuman and therefore he must be a guiding spirit for the people of this land. The ruling Congress party was however quick to term him an outsider and took exception to a North Indian talking to Kannadigas about their culture and tradition.
Similarly, whenever the BJP President Amit Shah has visited Karnataka, the ruling establishment has been relentlessly hitting back at him raking up the issues of the false cases and accusations that were hurled against him by the UPA government.
In addition, from every issue starting from funding of states for schemes to the budget for Swacch Bharat campaign, the Congress party in the state has made it a point to blame the central government for every ill affecting the performance of the state.
On another occasion when Prime Minister Modi visited Dharmasthala and later a railway inauguration event in Bidar, the Chief Minister excused himself from the event citing lack of proper invitation.
If one were to believe all this complaining, then the BJP government at the center is solely responsible for all the failures of the state government in Karnataka.
Campaign of silence
According to a recent report, Karnataka is one of the 5 states in India that is expected to have an urbanization ratio of more than 50% by 2030. Naturally, the capital city of Bengaluru will play a significant role, and bear a big burden, in this fructifying. However, the attitude of the state government towards this fast-growing city has been one of complete apathy and disregard.
The degeneration of Bengaluru city in the past 5 years is most evident in the stoic silence that the ruling establishment maintains when it talks about its “achievements”. From worsening traffic problems to increasing pollution to lack of civic amenities – the city has only seen its problems increasing. Not a single flyover or under-bridge has been completed on time. A new scheme – named TenderSURE – was launched and was touted as the panacea for all road-quality issues in the city. However, even after spending many tens of crores on some of the best roads of the city, the roads developed serious quality issues immediately after the first showers hit the city. The state government came up with an unpopular idea to build a steel bridge in the city and tried to push it through much against the wishes of the residents. In the end, it had to give in to the genuine concerns of the citizens and drop the plan.
The crowning jewel in this impressive list of non-achievements in Bengaluru was the fire display on Bellandur and Agara lakes. This ghastly incident only highlighted the utter contempt the civic authorities have for the once beautiful capital of Karnataka.
In its desperate attempt to cling on to power in Karnataka, and in the face of the obvious reality of non-achievement on the development front, the ruling party is resorting to every political, communal and social trick in the book to dent the electoral prospects of the opposition parties. More than a positive vote for itself, it seems to be banking on a division of votes amongst the opposition to retain power.
Whether it succeeds with this approach or not remains to be seen but one thing is certain – the road to power in May 2018 will be paved with a lot of dirty and unclean politics.